What to watch at MLB’s Winter Meetings: Aaron Judge, shortstops and trade candidates could create a frenzy

It’s time for the MLB Winter Meetings. The (usually) annual baseball industry meet-up typically serves as a powder keg for transaction fireworks. The past two years were canceled due to the pandemic and the team owners’ lockout, but the meetings return this week in San Diego.

Some major moves have already happened, of course. Most notably, longtime New York Mets ace Jacob deGrom bolted Friday for the Texas Rangers. The expectation is that a great deal more business will get done in Southern California.

So what do you need to know as executives, agents and springtime dreams descend on San Diego? Let’s start with five big storylines and five notable trade candidates.

The Aaron Judge decision

As you might’ve heard, AL MVP Aaron Judge, fresh off a 62-homer season in New York Yankees pinstripes, is a free agent. After turning down a seven-year, $213 million extension last spring, he went out and posted … just about the best contract year anyone has ever seen.

The mammoth slugger, who still plays an agile right field and can pass in center, is a top priority of the Yankees and the San Francisco Giants. ESPN’s Jeff Passan reports that the Yankees’ recent offer to Judge spans eight years and totals about $300 million — and could rise as the Giants bid.

With those two franchises towering as the most interested suitors, I broke down Judge’s potential decision, which could be revealed during this week’s meetings.

Will the Phillies spark the shortstop market?

Fresh off a World Series run, Phillies president Dave Dombrowski will not be resting on his laurels. The star-chasing executive is reportedly meeting with all four of the winter’s star free-agent shortstops — Carlos Correa, Trea Turner, Xander Bogaerts and Dansby Swanson — before the meetings even begin.

With second base vacated by Jean Segura, a free agent, the Phillies could easily shift promising rookie Bryson Stott to second if they lure another big name to join Bryce Harper, J.T. Realmuto and Kyle Schwarber.

Turner has perhaps been the shortstop most associated with the Phillies — and for good reason. His speed and bat-to-ball skills would add a whole new dimension to a lineup already packed to the gills with power. A bevy of other teams are keen on these potential franchise players, including the Chicago Cubs, but if you’re looking for the team that might strike first, it’s tough to bet against Dombrowski.

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Will the Dodgers show their hand?

The Los Angeles Dodgers go by a different name when transaction rumors are swirling: The Mystery Team.

Coming off a 111-victory season that ended in crushing postseason disappointment, president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman once again has an almost unlimited number of ways he could go to improve the team. And the biggest-spending team with the most flexible plan for the winter is always going to lurk as a threat — in the Aaron Judge sweepstakes, in the shortstop market, in high-profile trade discussions.

The Athletic’s Dodgers beat writer, Fabian Ardaya, recently employed a basketball-inspired Friedman quip to describe their posture heading into the Winter Meetings, saying they would be hanging out under the backboard, ready to pounce if a major talent is loose in the air.

That’s how L.A. nabbed Freddie Freeman last year, and if you don’t think the Dodgers will walk away with an impact player this winter — whether it’s Justin Verlander, Carlos Rodon or someone like Correa — you haven’t been paying much attention. Almost any of them could fit. Even franchise player Mookie Betts could move to second base if Judge were to don Dodger blue.

Whenever the Dodgers pounce, it will scramble someone’s plans. And a hot stove chain reaction will follow.

The unspoken factor that will weigh on any major long-term investment? The Dodgers are almost certainly preparing to make a run at Shohei Ohtani whenever he becomes available, whether via trade or in free agency next year.

Does a 2022 upstart have big plans?

When a team such as the Rangers is making a big splash in anticipation of contending, it stands to reason that other teams that have already shown promise might also enter the derby for top stars. A few to watch:

  • San Diego Padres president of baseball operations A.J. Preller would seem to have made enough splashes for a lifetime, most recently with the Juan Soto deal at the 2022 trade deadline, but needs at second base and in the outfield have opened the door to the Padres making a play for one of the star shortstops and finding a new position for Fernando Tatis Jr. when he returns.

  • The Seattle Mariners and hyperactive executive Jerry Dipoto already swapped Jesse Winker and Abraham Toro for Kolten Wong, a steady second baseman who will upgrade their every-day lineup. That would count as a letdown if it’s the biggest move for a franchise elated by its first postseason appearance since 2001 and its new superstar, Julio Rodriguez. The Mariners could and should consider a shortstop who could handle an eventual shift to third base, such as Bogaerts.

  • Hello, Baltimore Orioles! Their rapid 2022 rise out of a miserable rebuild might inspire top baseball executive Mike Elias to start ramping up the pursuit of veteran contributors. With newly adjusted fences in Camden Yards making the park far more pitcher-friendly, the Orioles would do well to sell a reliable starter on joining an up-and-coming, young team. An innings-eating arm with playoff experience such as Nathan Eovaldi would make a ton of sense here. Watch for this front office, staffed by former Astros personnel, to snag some under-the-radar players to develop, too.

How hot will the starting pitcher market get?

No position group has gotten off to a faster start this winter than starting pitching. Eyebrow-raising salaries for gambles such as Matthew Boyd and Mike Clevinger gave way to a record-setting Tampa Bay Rays deal for Zach Eflin, and then the dam broke when the Texas Rangers secured mega-ace Jacob deGrom on a five-year, $185 million deal.

Whether in dollars or in years, just about every starter except new Angels addition Tyler Anderson has exceeded expectations. That means Cy Young winner Justin Verlander could command $40 million per year, and Carlos Rodon could fly past the five-year, $125 million baseline established by the recent Kevin Gausman and Robbie Ray deals.

And the next tier of arms, including Chris Bassitt and Nathan Eovaldi, could earn far more guaranteed money than we might have foreseen a month ago.

Five trade candidates to watch

Sean Murphy, Oakland Athletics catcher

A stellar defensive backstop whose power bat makes him one of the game’s best all-around catchers, Murphy is about to get expensive. That means the A’s are about to consider trading him. He would be a huge addition for several contenders, including the post-Yadier Molina St. Louis Cardinals and the Cleveland Guardians, who might as well have sent a cardboard cutout to bat for their catchers in 2022.

Pablo Lopez, Miami Marlins pitcher

The 6-foot-4 right-hander with a baffling changeup has established himself as a strong starter. Boasting a 3.52 ERA over 63 starts since 2020, Lopez has two years of team control remaining at a bargain arbitration salary. The Marlins, who have been very successful developing young pitchers, might be inclined to trade him to beef up a weak lineup.

Bryan Reynolds, Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder

The 27-year-old center fielder — an annual threat to bat .300 with 25-plus homers, who reportedly requested a trade this week — could fetch a very appealing package if GM Ben Cherington moves him amid a rebuild that isn’t quite ready for prime time. Once Judge and Brandon Nimmo choose teams, the Pirates could be well-positioned to capitalize on Reynolds' desire for a change of scenery.

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Arizona Diamondbacks outfielders … almost any of them

The Diamondbacks currently have five left-handed outfielders likely worthy of regular major-league playing time. That math, what with there being only three outfield positions, doesn’t exactly add up.

Here’s who they won’t move: Corbin Carroll, a rocket-powered 22-year-old, who ranks among the best prospects in the game and hit the ground running in his first taste of the big leagues. It’s also unlikely they move catcher-turned-center-fielder Daulton Varsho. His bonkers set of skills is too useful to give up.

The rest? Take your pick among Jake McCarthy (ripped off eight homers and 23 steals in only 99 games), Pavin Smith (a top draft pick who might thrive with a change of scenery) and Alek Thomas (another hyped prospect whose first foray in the big leagues was bumpy).

A lot of teams are going to be calling on these guys, and the Diamondbacks — who are closer to contention than you might realize — could pull off a big move, thanks to their surplus.

Rhys Hoskins, Philadelphia Phillies first baseman

It would be a bummer to see Hoskins dealt away from Philadelphia after his cathartic postseason heroics, but the roster might demand it. A first baseman who would probably be slotted in as a designated hitter on … 25 teams? … Hoskins would provide much-needed thump for a whole host of teams, while the Phillies have nothing but thump.

As Dombrowski considers shortstop options and the younger players taking steps forward, he might decide that the best move is to free up first base as a haven for Alec Bohm or Kyle Schwarber and as a way of injecting more defensive ability elsewhere on the roster.